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Central African Integration Limited by Domestic Differences

New CEMAC parliament inaugurated but lack of fiscal coordination, uneven business and visa regulations hamper cooperation.

Central African leaders have high hopes for a new regional parliament. But the lack of fiscal coordination and differences in immigration law continue to make the group less competitive than the neighboring Economic Community of West African States.

Heads of state from the Central Africa Economic and Monetary Community inaugurated their new parliament with a gala opening last week. The $30 million, Chinese-built assembly in Equatorial Guinea gives a new home and new mandate to a body that began as an inter-parliamentary commission 10 years ago.

Cameroon, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic and Chad each have five delegates to oversee the functioning and budget of a CEMAC Commission charged with promoting democracy and accelerating regional integration.

Cameroon's Antoine Ntsimi, president of the commission, says the most urgent issues facing CEMAC and its new parliament are fighting poverty, easing the movement of people, and better harnessing the region's oil wealth.

Equatorial Guinea, the Congo Republic, Chad, and Gabon are among Africa's top ten oil producers, yet CEMAC's 30 million people remain among the world's poorest.

Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo says the new regional parliament in Malabo will better serve the region's people.

President Obiang says the new parliament will help the CEMAC commission consolidate peace, safeguard collective security, promote the development of democracy and good governance and improve national reconciliation.

He says greater economic and political integration will transform the region, increasing private-sector investment and raising the living standards of everyone.

But there is still no fiscal coordination between CEMAC members on budgeting or planning. And foreign investors say business regulations in the region vary widely.

"When there is economic and regional integration, there is usually some convergence criteria that they put in place, which may be related to the rate of inflation or related to fiscal deficits and so on," says economics professor Baye Mengjo, who teaches at the University of Yaounde. "Some countries may not really want to be committed in trying to implement those things because they involve some adjustment policies that have to take place in their various countries."

Unlike citizens of the neighboring, 15-member Economic Community of West African States, CEMAC citizens are not permitted to travel freely within the alliance.

"If you are talking about integration, talking about economic cooperation, if a citizen from country A has to seek for a visa - and even at times unsuccessfully - to get into the other country, then what are we talking about?" Mengjo asked.

The West African economic bloc has a regional stock exchange in Abidjan. In Central Africa, there is no link between the stock markets in Libreville and Douala.

Mengjo says CEMAC is also weakened by a multitude of bilateral agreements with European and Asian governments that sometimes pit one member's economy against another because they all more or less produce the same things.

"All those factors are themselves working against regional integration, especially in the CEMAC region where the individual countries and their authorities are not very committed [to] developing a market among themselves. The trade between the CEMAC member countries is very very small," Mengjo said.

The International Monetary Fund estimates CEMAC's intra-regional trade accounts for less than two percent of members' exports. It remains a regional body held together largely by a common currency backed by France and pegged to the Euro.